The Supreme Court declined to hear a case related to the alleged unfair treatment of an Illinois inmate on Monday, despite the objections of three liberal justices.
Attorneys for inmate Michael Johnson argued that the conditions of his confinement in a windowless room with only occasional trips to the shower violated his constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment.
A federal appeals court ruled that the treatment did not fall under that clause.
Justice Kentanji Brown Jackson led fellow justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan in the dissent, arguing that the appeals court did not follow proper legal precedent in reaching its decision.
Jackson wrote that Johnson’s confinement was “unusually harsh” compared to other solitary confinement conditions because he was also denied access to an outdoor exercise area, even for short periods of time.
“Johnson spent nearly every hour of his existence in a constantly lit, windowless cell the size of a parking space,” she wrote. “His cell was poorly ventilated, resulting in unbearable heat and noxious odors. The space was also unsanitary, often covered with human waste.”
She described how a “yard restriction” was imposed on Johnson consecutively as punishment, banning him from using the outdoor practice fields for three years after offenses ranging from 30 to 90 days were stacked on top of each other.
“Thus, for three years, Johnson had no opportunity at all to stretch his limbs or breathe fresh air,” Jackson wrote.
Johnson also experienced deteriorating mental and physical health while confined to the cell, she claims, including suicidality and extreme physical fatigue.
“He suffered from hallucinations, wore out his own body, urinated and defecated on himself, smeared feces on his body and cell,” Jackson wrote. “Johnson became suicidal and sometimes misbehaved with the hope that prison guards would beat him to death.”
“Worse still, Johnson’s dire physical condition led to further yard restrictions, as prison guards accused him of being disruptive and having an unclean cell,” she continued.
The inmate was later committed to a mental health treatment facility where his condition improved, she said.
The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed Johnson’s case and ruled against him, saying that imposing individual “yard restrictions” does not violate the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause. The court cited a previous case that justified a one-year yard restriction.
But Jackson argued that Johnson’s case was different because of the extreme length of the consecutive sentences, as well as his status as a mentally unstable prisoner.
The appeals court “did not consider the impact of cumulative exercise deprivation on Johnson’s physical and mental health, nor what prison officials knew about the risks of such deprivation,” she wrote.
The judge said the court should have tried the case instead under the standard of whether prison officials showed “deliberate indifference” to Johnson’s health and safety, after a separate trial.
The Supreme Court does not give an explanation when it refuses to take a case.
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